Turkish proposal protecting child marriage sparks debate

ISTANBUL (AP) " A debate flared in Turkey on Friday after a government proposal which would pardon some people imprisoned for statutory rape fell short of passage by legislators.

The proposal would defer sentencing or punishment for sexual assault in cases where there was no force and where the victim and perpetrator were married. Opposition legislators, rights groups and other critics warned that the proposal facilitates child marriage.

The proposal was introduced late Thursday by the ruling Justice and Development Party, rooted in Turkey's Islamic movement, which says it is meant to protect those who were too young to marry legally. The proposal will be brought up again for consideration on Tuesday.

An earlier law said there is no sexual assault if the couple marry. It was replaced by the current law in 2005, which set a minimum prison sentence of eight years, extended to 16 years in 2014.

"Those aren't rapists, they aren't people who committed sexual assault by force. Those are acts done with the consent of families and the young ones," Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Friday, adding that the later law had ignored the matter of consent.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said: "In the past there were people who were not aware of the law. The fathers have ended up in prison. This is a one-time measure to correct an unjust situation. It is an important problem."

The government's proposal would apply to cases between 2005 and Nov. 16 of this year, which would affect an estimated 3,000 families.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported several opposition legislators slamming the proposal. Republican People's Party Deputy Chair Tekin Bingol said they "strongly rejected" it, saying it amounted to a pardon for rapists.

Mehmet Onur Yilmaz of Gundem Cocuk, a children's rights organization whose operations were halted by the government last week, told The Associated Press the issue stemmed from not taking child marriage seriously.

"If there was an understanding that child marriage constituted sexual assault such a proposal would not even be brought up," said Yilmaz. "This comes from looking at the matter with a focus on marriage, a conservative understanding which sees marriage as a solution to the problem of abuse."

Under current law, Yilmaz said, a person between the ages of 16-18 can get a special exemption allowing marriage by a court, and that is almost always granted.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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